When developing a plan of forgiveness, I ask people to think about someone who hurt them in the initial stages. I want them to experience the pain caused by those who treated them badly, not because I am sadistic, but because it starts the healing process. I know it seems like I’m being cruel, but our natural tendency is to back away from pain keeping us from addressing the actual problem. Just like when we suffer from physical issues, we prefer to modify our lives to accommodate the immediate pain rather than do what needs done to resolve it for good. No one likes to address pain. If you have a problem walking because your leg hurts you tend to keep from walking great distances. If you’ve experienced difficulty in a past relationship you tend to avoid intimacy in other similar relationships. The physical and psychological experiences of pain are the same and how we resolve physical and emotional pain is not very different. For example, if you have something physically wrong with your body you go to a doctor and the doctor explores that pain with you. He or she may ask you to go through procedures that inflict more pain, but in the end the hope is you will recover. Our natural inclination is to run like crazy from that experience but we know if we persist in the treatment working through the pain we gain a healthier body and a more fulfilling life. This is the same experience we have when healing spiritually and psychologically.
I also like to make it clear to my clients that forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. If you were abused by someone dangerous or toxic I’m not suggesting you reestablish a relationship with that person. There’s always the possibility it could occur, but it’s not essential for healing and requires both parties to make significant changes to begin trusting one another again. Forgiveness is an act of love and goodwill extended to someone who hurt you, not necessarily the reestablishment of a relationship. Remember, because we’re created in the image of God we were created to receive and give love. This action of giving and receiving love is the very heart of who God is. This internal life of giving and receiving love is expressed in God’s trinitarian nature. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in a continual act of giving and receiving love. We were created for the same type of existence. Whenever we withhold love or don’t receive it from others, particularly from those closest to us, we experience pain. This self-giving and sacrificial love demonstrated by the life of God is called agape love. Whenever human beings serve others selflessly they exhibit this type of love. So forgiving someone means extending good will toward an individual who has hurt you. It means embracing agape love. Yes, this is a difficult and painful process and it’s my hope those seeking to overcome their anger and depression can embrace it, but it often requires work with a trusted adviser, therapist, or spiritual director. It takes time and I know at first the goodwill you extend toward someone who hurt you is small, but with practice it can grow.
Let’s get back to the first step I talked about which is thinking about a time when you were hurt. This step involves revisiting the wounds inflicted on you by another person or group of people. Take some time to reflect upon and re-experience the emotional difficulties still existing because of the wounds you carry around from that encounter. Is there one person who hurt you the most? Is there any one particular incident standing out above all others? Don’t deny the pain, be honest with yourself about how you feel and how intensely you feel about it. Explore the pain and any other negative feelings that arise. Do you experience guilt because of what happened? Do you feel shame or embarrassment? Because our emotions are a component of being a holistically integrated person does it appear these negative emotions are impacting other parts of your life? Are they impacting your physical health, mental health, relationships, or spiritual life? Has this experience changed how you behave and act in the world? Would you rather be acting and behaving differently? What might that difference look like?
This is the beginning of exploring your wounds. Just like a medical doctor takes time to explore a fracture or tumor in your body, you must probe the painful areas within your soul. It can be painful, but take the time to explore the wound and get a real sense of the many areas of your life it impacts. Again, this can be traumatic so I suggest you do this with a spiritual director or good therapist. Just as you wouldn’t perform surgery on yourself for a very drastic medical problem, don’t try and perform spiritual and psychological triage on yourself. However, some wounds can be treated by taking the time to reflect on them and experience them by yourself. The determining factor is measuring the pain associated with the recollection. If it’s too much find someone who can walk with you in the dark places we sometimes have to go.
Continuing with this process of forgiveness requires one to transition from experiencing pain to recognizing you’ve never been alone in your suffering. Visualize the people who have walked with you through your painful experiences. They may not have known how helpful they’ve been to you in coping with your situation but you know who they are and what they’ve done for you. Think of the people who have unconditionally loved you and allowed you to love them back. Recognize the love they’ve shared with you and the love you’ve given them. Explore how this has helped you cope with your situation. Remember, the Christian walk is a walk of love. Be thankful for those who’ve been there for you. Then, think of Christ in the midst of this painful situation. See how he continually stayed with you and suffered with you. He has not been a passive onlooker but rather suffered every wound you experienced as well. If we’re his body as described by St. Paul then when we suffer he suffers as well. Christ is God present within our human condition, even the painful and cruel experiences we inflict upon one another. This is your love story. Embrace it even though it includes some hurtful experiences. Come back to those who have loved you through this story as often as you need to recognizing there has been goodwill extended to you. Sometimes you’ve been loved even when you may have hurt others.
Lastly, I want you to think about how strong a person you are. I want you to recognize even in the midst of all this pain you continue to survive. You are not a victim, you are a survivor. While you may not be functioning as best as you can, you are surviving and that speaks a great deal to how you allowed the Grace of God to empower you. When we open ourselves to God’s love we find a resilience that transcends all our abilities. Embrace that love.
Practice this for a couple of days. Each time write down who hurt you and the particular incident that’s most painful. Write down who has been there for you through it and how Christ has felt your pain. Reflect and pray about this. If the pain is too much consider looking for a spiritual director or a therapist to talk with, you don’t need to tackle the most painful experiences right now and on your own. Be mindful of your level of suffering because you must be ready to take the next step which is difficult. The next step is deciding to forgive the person who caused you so much pain. As you know by now, that means extending love and good will to someone who has profoundly hurt you. Can you do that? It takes courage. It’s just like deciding to go into the hospital for surgery. It will be painful but if you can do it you will experience healing and health.
I have written previously about making this choice to forgive others here. Review this post and ponder it in the context of what we have been sharing here. I would love to dialgue with you about it so your comments are very much appreciated.